Inevitably, Fishburn's article provoked a bit of a sour reaction from some. Some people said they chose what to read regardless of gender, as long as it was good... Is it a fair point? I don't think so. Granted, literary prizes are usually won by men and male writers are published more than women which means that we mostly read novels by male authors. But what if it was a vicious circle? What if we made an effort to buy more books by female writers; the publishers will surely notice and start publishing more women which will lead them to win prizes more often. All we need to do is create more demand for women's fiction and as a result our bookshelves and minds will become more diverse.
Ah, diversity. You knew I'd end up slotting this word in and indeed here it is. Inspired by Fishburn, I wanted to make my reading more diverse this year. Normally I read pretty widely in a sense that I read both fiction and non-fiction, and I often pick up a crime or a sci-fi novel. I make sure I read at least a couple of books a year in Russian, which is always a treat. At the beginning of January I read an article about books which are likely to make some noise this year (e.g. "The Testaments" by Margaret Atwood) and I realised that most authors mentioned were Anglo-Saxon. Indeed, those of us who live in the UK or in the US mostly read British or American authors. And yet when Elena Ferrante or Stieg Larsson come along, we devour their books. What if I gave myself a challenge this year to read novels by authors of different nationalities without repeating them? Now that's an idea.
By the time I came up with this plan, I have already read "Lady Chatterley's Lover" by the English classic D.H. Lawrence, a dystopian novel "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel and Amy Bloom's "White Houses", historical fiction about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. I have spent my biggest Anglo-Saxon credits and had to get more creative at once!
Getting book recommendations was easy. My German friend Anne advised me to read Peter Stamm, a Swiss author, whose many novels had been translated into English. I read his early novella "Agnes" about a relationship between a writer and his muse, set in Chicago. I then picked up "Adèle", the latest book by the author of "Lullaby", Leïla Slimani. Slimani lives in France and writes in French but she was born in Morocco. "Adèle" is a short introspective novel about a woman addicted to sex. It was not until "Jamilia" by Chingiz Aïtmatov that my little project has finally borne fruit.
Chingiz Aïtmatov (1928-2008) is a Kyrgyz-Soviet writer who wrote both in his native Kyrgyz and in Russian. He wrote "Jamilia" in Russian in 1957. It's a novella about love set in a small Kyrgyz aul (village) at the time of the Second World War. It's "a simple and beautiful evocation of time, place and the power of love... deserves to be known as one of the world's great and timeless love stories", says a review by Booktrust. I was taken away by the beautiful narrative of a master storyteller: it's impossible to believe that it took Aïtmatov less than 100 pages to transport me to another world and make me long for it days after I finished the book. I would not have picked this slim volume from a charity bookstore in Chiswick unless I was deliberately looking for an unusual author to read.
My challenge has proven to be highly infectious. I received many tantalising recommendations in the last few weeks and my Kindle is now brimming with samples. My agent and friend Charlotte said I should read "The Last Children of Tokyo" by Yoko Tawada, while my Japanese friend recommended me "Let the Right One In" by a Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. The shop assistants at Waterstones in Covent Garden asked whether they could give me their favourite books by international authors and now my list has "The Vegetarian" by a Korean author Han Kang and "The Radetzky March" by an Austrian Joseph Roth. I ordered a novel by the Romanian author Herta Müller, who, as it turns out, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008. I had no idea!
The possibilities are endless. Even if you are not a fan of translated fiction, just going through a pile of books by Irish, Scottish, Australian, South African, Canadian, English, US and Indian writers would get you through to the summer at the very least. It's a superb opportunity to dive into Nordic Noir (think Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland) or perhaps go for a French classic (Colette? Hugo? Camus?). It's your time to tackle "War and Peace" (although I personally would suggest "Anna Karenina" instead).
There is something magical in setting yourself a reading challenge. It's vastly more pleasant than trudging through a Dry January or a similarly depressing New Year resolution. And it seems to have weaned me off telly for a while. I am now reading Michelle Obama's "Becoming" (non-fiction is off the challenge) but I am already looking forward to diving back into fiction. The more weird and wonderful, the better. Happy reading!